Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Difficult Desire to Love

(As Advent  (the Christmas season) approaches our church is going to focus on four themes--worship fully, spend less, give more, love all.  I was asked to write down my reflections on what it means to love all.  I invite you to read my thoughts on what it means for a Christ-follower  to love all.)

I confess that I'm about as close to loving all as I am to spontaneously generating hair.   My neighbor with the outdoor, perpetually barking dog would agree.   I wish I could say to you what the apostle Paul said to his readers,  "Follow my example."  Unfortunately, there are days when I don't love my wife well, much less love my enemy.  However, I can encourage you to follow Jesus' example.  As the apostle John says of Jesus,  "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world."  (I  John 1:2).  He loved and loves all. 

As Christ-followers we, in turn, are to do the same.  "This is the message you have heard from the beginning:  We should love one another. . . we know we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers.  Anyone who does not love remains in death." (I John 3:11,14)    So, what might that look like if we were to "love all?"  A few suggestions.

Here's what it does NOT mean.  It's not a mushy, sentimentality that is blind to the harsh realities of life.  It's not sloppy agape'.  Neither is it an attitude of "we're just going to love everybody, accept everything, and approve of all."  It is not some limp-wristed, non-assertive blind acceptance and approval of everyone and their accompanying depraved actions.  It is not values-free and void of convictions.    Jesus was characterized by the noblest of values  and the deepest of convictions (see the sermon on the mount.)  Loving without strong values and moral scruples may not indicate a loving person so much as a spineless person.

Some thoughts on what it means to "love all."  I referred to what it's not; here's what I see it as being.   It is humanly  impossible.  I know--not exactly good news.  My own will-power will not turn me into a person who loves all.  (This much I know:  my own experience has shown that 61 years of exerting will-power has not changed me into a man who loves his neighbor with the outdoor, perpetually barking dog.)  On the other hand, my will-power has, indeed, devised  devious schemes for silencing the previously mentioned dog.  It requires transcendence to love all.  It requires God in me--a holy Other to inhabit and indwell me and thereby slowly transform me into a man who loves all.  Most certainly, my will-power needs to be in alignment with my desire to love all; however, my will-power is inadequate to create that depth and width of love.  That requires God himself, or it won't happen. 

To love all means to indiscriminately love all others while not necessarily approving of or sanctioning their actions or behavior.  Jesus, in referring to Jerusalem, pleads with the city, " O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks. . . " (Matt. 23:36)  Notice the city's behavior--they killed, they stoned to death God's very own messengers.  Notice, also, Christ's heart--he longed to gather them.  He wasn't about revenge; he was all about reconciliation.

To love all means that my love transcends cultural, gender, socio-economic, ethnic differences.  We don't ignore those differences; to do so may be very unloving.  It's just that we don't allow those differences to define who we love and who we don't.   Jesus was once invited to dinner by one of the Pharisees, the respectable religious decision-makers of the day.  The text states that "when a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind Jesus at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears.  Then she wiped his feet with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them."  (Lk. 7:36-8)  Luke, the gospel writer, is very polite when he describes her as "a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town."  She was the town slut-- a whore.  Jesus knew that, but he didn't allow those gender and moral and cultural differences to define this woman nor determine his response to her.  Ultimately, he forgives her and affirms her for her loving heart toward him. 

How do we move toward becoming Christ followers and, collectively, a church that loves all?  Several considerations.  A disciplined life of yielding to Christ will be essential.  Daily I must yield my own ego-centered self to Christ and ask him to, instead, reside in me fully.  Daily, something in me has to die in order that something in Christ can live in me and form a heart that loves all.  Surely, in time, the presence of Christ will remedy the absence of love. Secondly, it helps me in my regard for others if I practice what the apostle Paul did.  It's an issue of how I am identifying or defining the other individual.  I find myself too frequently impulsively identifying others as "idiots" or "jerks" or worse.  A guy cuts me off in traffic and I impulsively label him a !!#?*!!  Look at how the apostle Paul identifies others.  In Romans 14:15, he cautions the church to be careful that they don't destroy "your brother for whom Christ died."    It is so much easier to flip off and harbor resentment toward the guy who cuts me off in traffic if I identify him as "an idiot."  On the other hand, it is much harder to entertain hateful thoughts toward that same individual if I consciously regard him as "my brother for whom Christ died."  I am much more likely to have a loathsome, rather than a loving, regard for a woman whom I identify as "trailerpark trash."  In contrast, if I consciously attribute value to her and view her as "my sister for whom Christ died" I posture myself in a way that makes loving her much more likely.  Third, I will not progress toward becoming one who loves all by doing so in isolation.  I need to be accountable to several others who are on the same journey of faith.  I can rationalize, minimize, excuse my lack of love all too easily if I am only accountable to my conscience.  I need others who will most certainly encourage and support me in my holy intentions, but who will also correct me and re-calibrate my direction if I'm drifting.

At times, I feel like I will never become one who loves all.  If I have difficulty loving the above mentioned neighbor with the outdoor perpetually barking dog--which on the grand scale of moral/ethical dilemmas is inconsequential--how will I ever love the man who sexually abused one of our daughters?  I imagine that, you, too, wrestle with the everyday irritants and sometimes stumble over your own trivial nemeses, much less find yourself loving those who have deeply wounded or offended you.    Take heart.  The One who loved and loves all is committed to "transforming you into the image of His own Son"--His Son who loves all.  Know this:  God promises you and me that "he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion. . . " (Phil. 1:6)

The Lover of all has begun a good work of love within you.  He always finishes what he starts. 

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